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Series 3: Papers of Founder: Clare J. Dickinson (1755-1830)

Identifier: Series 3

Scope and Contents

Sister Clare Joseph of the Sacred Heart (Frances Dickinson) was born in London, England in 1755, entered the Carmel at English Antwerp in 1772, and took her vows in 1774. Her prioress during much of her formation was the American-born Mother Mary Margaret of the Angels Brent; it was she who initially shared the dream of returning to America to establish Carmel. When M. Mary Margaret died in 1784, the idea was carried forward by the benefactor of the project, Joseph de Villegas D'Estainbourg of Brussels and his Carmelite friend in Antwerp Carmel, Sister Teresa Cowdrey. But, although S. Teresa had been the likely choice to join the original group of founders (joining M. Bernardina and her nieces from Hoogstraet Carmel), it was decided to send Sister Clare Joseph instead--this apparently because of the influence of Charles Neale, chaplain at Antwerp and spiritual director of the American venture. According to a later chronicler, the choice was based on the belief that Clare Joseph's talents appeared "more brilliant" than Teresa's. From the very start, Sister Clare Joseph was aware of the significance of the mission. For example, she kept the diary of the journey from Amsterdam to Port Tobacco, Maryland. Her forty years at Port Tobacco would set such a distinct mark upon the community that it would lead a subsequent prioress (Mother Seraphim Byrnes, 1917-1940) to claim that Clare Joseph must be considered the principal founder of the American Carmel (though this is by no mean the consensus of historians or generations of Carmelites who recognize the significant influence of the first American born prioress). As spiritual leader, administrator of community life, and liaison with bishops and clergy, she guided the fledging community with practicality and common sense, mixed with a certain lightheartedness, spiritual depth and sociability. The impressions she made upon the hierarchy and clergy, particularly upon the Jesuit community whose services to the early community were invaluable, made the sound establishment of Port Tobacco possible. With the support of Charles Neale, she was able to build an energetic, expanding community that could support itself even in extremely difficult financial times. She also contributed to Jesuit projects, especially that of compiling spiritual books; thus, it is part of Carmelite history that she is the one who collated the "Pious Guide", a prayer book widely circulated by the Jesuits in the early nineteenth century. The papers of Clare Joseph Dickinson range from materials of a personal nature brought with her to America, as well as spiritual works that she either personally used, copied, translated, or composed for the direction of her sisters. These include manuscripts, prayer books, prayer cards, spiritual conferences, providing advice and information, manuals for ceremonies and the Divine Office, poetry that she wrote for the community, and spiritual exercises used at the time of retreats. In particular, the spiritual advice and reflections she offered her sisters, as well as the ways in which she brightened the life of her sisters through celebration, demonstrate her style of leadership and, thus, provide a valuable source of how early Carmelite spirituality evolved in the American setting. Her interest in forming spiritual associations with the laity and spiritual contracts with religious congregations, as well as the kind of devotional life she encouraged, is apparent in her records. In ill health for the last thirty years of her life and exhausted from the severe burden of the Port Tobacco farm and the law suit that threatened their survival, Mother Clare Joseph died on March 27, 1830, after an extremely difficult period of suffering and illness.


  • 1650-1831
  • Majority of material found in 1780-1830


From the Record Group: 3 linear feet

Repository Details

Part of the Archives of the Carmelite Monastery of Baltimore Repository

1318 Dulaney Valley Road
Baltimore MD 21286 USA